Health and safety concerns about what we eat and drink and the environmental impact of food are only a few factors driving the organic industry. While sales rise steeply, ambiguity remains about what organic means. For example, is water organic or inorganic?
Water is an inorganic compound since it doesn’t contain carbon, nor was it formed by a living organism. While we often associate “organic” with positive food attributes, its presence in water is not as desirable. Without purification, water contains organic substances that are harmful to people and the environment.
Like many others, if you have wondered what organic actually means, keep reading this article as we break the definition down for you step by step. You will discover water’s main characteristics and why it’s so critical that we protect our limited freshwater resources.
Is Water Organic or Inorganic?
Our drinking water, gathered through the natural process of precipitation, is considered inorganic. The chemical formula H2O reveals this secret almost instantly. Each water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms (H) joined to one atom of oxygen (O). For something to qualify as organic, it requires carbon. So water, by definition, is inorganic (source).
So, where does the phenomenon of organic water come from?
Organic Water: A Marketing Wave
You might have spotted organic water on the shelves of your local grocery store or online while browsing the internet. Even though water is by default inorganic, marketers have done a great job selling the public organic water.
This has added extra fuel to an already heated debate between health experts and consumers about the advantages of organic foods over conventional foods. The assumption is that organic foods, by default, are healthier, more nutritious, and safer.
Despite the fact that organic products have some safety advantages over conventional foods, various studies have shown that, nutritionally speaking, they have few extra benefits (source).
These findings have not stopped companies from taking advantage of the booming organic trend, explaining the presence of “organic” water.
The lesson we should learn from “organic” water is crystal clear: make sure to read food labels carefully. While a product may be labeled organic, it is not by default a healthier choice. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories (source).
And rest assured that whether you choose organic or inorganic food, you can still eat healthily. Eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, legumes, and eggs all forms part of a healthy diet irrespective of how they were grown.
Water Quality and Organic Substances
While organic is, at least, largely associated with positive attributes in food, you would not want organic substances in your drinking water. Found virtually everywhere in our environment, organic substances can present serious problems in water utilization.
Natural organic substances, such as decaying plant and animal matter, can deplete oxygen in water sources and act as carriers of harmful elements.
Man-made organic compounds, such as pesticides, have been shown to have many detrimental effects on water quality (source).
Natural water is never completely pure due to being mainly gathered through precipitation. Prior to purification, water gets exposed to contaminants and impurities that can significantly alter its composition (source).
Organic chemicals fall into four categories: synthetic organic chemicals, disinfection byproducts, polychlorinated biphenyls, and Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) (source).
While organic agriculture is far from harmful, the environmental impact of organic pesticides is not as clear-cut.
More studies indicate that organic pesticides, while approved, are not more environmentally benign than synthetics, and they call for empirically-based risk assessment (source).
The bottom line is the fewer chemicals, whether synthetics or organic, are used, the lower the risk to freshwater sources.
While protecting and ensuring safe drinking water is the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) top priority, it remains our responsibility as well.
Clean, Pristine and Cosmic Water
Water is of fundamental importance for life on Earth. However, how it got here is still a mystery, although some theorists claim to know the answer.
One theory places water during the formation of Earth, while another claims a comet or an asteroid brought Earth’s water.
Interestingly enough, a recent study argues that organic matter could be the source of terrestrial water. Heating of interstellar organic matter at high temperatures could yield abundant water and oil, debunking the other two theories (source).
It is clear that more research is needed, and the mere existence of water on Earth will continue to be the subject of lively scientific debate.
While most of us assume it is here in abundance, freshwater is limited.
Three percent of the Earth’s water is fresh, and only half a percent is accessible. Two-and-one-half percent is unavailable due to pollution, or it’s inaccessible in glaciers, ice caps, the atmosphere, and soil (source).
The Bureau of Reclamation California-GreatBasin put together the below table displaying percentages, where water can be found on Earth (source).
|Groundwater mostly inaccessible||0.62%|
|Inland seas/salt lakes||0.008%|
Apart from limited freshwater, we have not yet mastered the ability to create more, at least not in high enough volumes to sustain all human, animal, and plant life on Earth.
Not only is it too expensive to reproduce, but the high quantities of energy needed would also likely lead to major explosions.
Climate change, population growth, and changing consumption patterns add additional pressure to already limited freshwater sources. Therefore, protecting and conserving what we have is a top priority.
What can you do to contribute?
The United States Environmental Protection Agency advises individuals to invest in WaterSense-labeled products and to use water wisely and sparingly in and around the household. For daily tips, the EPA’s website is a great resource (source).
What Does “Organic” Really Mean?
You have probably come across the organic label many times during your grocery runs. Although most individuals understand the gist what it entails, let’s look at the chemical definition of organic and how the food industry applies it.
The Chemical Definition of Organic
In chemistry, “organic” describes chemical compounds that contain carbon and other elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus.
Not all six elements are required, but carbon and hydrogen should be present. All living organisms contain carbon (source).
Molecules form when two or more atoms, the smallest units of all matter in the universe, bond together. When atoms combine through chemical bonding, they form compounds, unique structures composed of two or more atoms (source).
The everyday organic chemicals you will find around the house are olive oil, ethanol — a form of alcohol found in hand sanitizer — wine, sugar, and the caffeine in your coffee.
The Agricultural Definition of Organic
When applied to food production, organic means it was naturally grown with no artificial additives. The United States Department of Agriculture defines organic as produce that has grown in soil with no prohibited substances for three years before harvest (source).
The organic label applies to products containing at least 95 percent organic ingredients grown with no prohibited substances or irradiation used in production or processing.
Products with labels reading “made with organic ingredients” contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients but less than 95 percent and are grown with no artificial additives (source).
What is Not Organic?
The Oxford Dictionary defines inorganic as not consisting of or coming from any living substances, and, in chemistry, it defines chemical compounds without carbon (source).
Common inorganic compounds in water are ammonia, chlorine, and titanium dioxide. Other well-known inorganic compounds are bimolecular oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and some acids, bases, and salts (source).
If you desire to discover and learn more about oxygen, read our helpful article on understanding the molecular structure of oxygen. There is one more compound which we will discuss further into the article.
In terms of agricultural field and farm practices, inorganic refers to conventional foods that use synthetics, such as chemical fertilizers, for production.
Conventional farming uses pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to enhance plant growth and control insects, weeds, fungi, and other pests.
Lastly, it is worth pointing out that “natural” is not the same as “organic.” The natural label on food generally refers to no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. However, it does not refer to the methods or materials used to produce the food ingredients (source).
What Is Water?
Water is a compound of molecules formed from hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
Each water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms joined to one oxygen atom, as is visible in the chemical formula H2O. Water exists in gas, liquid, or solid states depending on temperature and pressure (source).
While 71 percent of Earth’s surface is water, available freshwater is limited. Accessing clean and safe drinking water for all is, therefore, a top priority.
Let’s have a closer look at the properties of water and understand what influences its makeup and quality.
The Characteristics of Water
The characteristics of water, classified into three broad categories, are as follows. The first category relates to physical categories, determined by our senses of taste, touch, sight, and smell. It includes temperature, color, odor, turbidity, and solids.
Water temperature impacts multiple processes, affecting the oxygen level in the water, biological activity and growth, water chemistry, water quantity measurements, and controlling the kinds of organisms that live in water bodies (source).
Even though most individuals prefer clear water, water is not completely colorless and has a slight blue tint.
In most cases, color is an aesthetic indicator of water quality. Rigorous purification by water-supply systems ensures that some discoloration in water is usually harmless.
Have you ever picked up a funny odor from water? A common complaint is the smell of rotten eggs, derived from the chemical hydrogen sulfide gas, which can occur when water comes into contact with organic matter or minerals, such as pyrite (source).
Turbidity describes the clarity of the water, which is an important factor in drinking water quality. The lower the turbidity and the cloudiness, the better the water will be.
Total dissolved solids (TDS) refers to different minerals dissolved in water. Common ones are calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides, and sulfates. The TDS should remain relatively stable to sustain fish, plant life, and humans (source).
The second characteristic of water is chemically based and includes a variety of factors. We have highlighted the most common chemical properties here.
The pH measures how acidic basic water is, with water at a pH level of seven. Salinity measures the amount of salts and hardness, which enhances the palatability and consumer acceptance of water.
Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) represents how much oxygen is needed to break down organic matter in water (source).
The final and third category classifies water according to biological characteristics like counts of specific organisms and groups of organisms.
Microbial contamination is a serious concern for water quality. Many types of microorganisms are naturally present in the water, such as bacteria and viruses (source).
The three-dimensional characteristics of water are crucial to understanding water quality. Physical, chemical, and biological characteristics all influence the quality of water and determine whether it is suitable for human and animal consumption and plant life.
Despite marketers’ best attempts, organic water is an oxymoron. By definition, water is inorganic because it is not a living organism as it does not contain carbon.
Water can contain organic components, such as pesticides from farming, and these are harmful to people and the environment. Despite its best efforts, organic agriculture uses organic pesticides, which, while approved, are not more environmentally benign than synthetics.
The bottom line is the fewer chemicals, whether synthetics or organic, are used, the lower the risk to freshwater sources. With strained freshwater resources on the planet, protecting and conserving what we have is a top priority.